NEW YORK – The Yankees were in trouble. Their 1925 season was only two months old, and the team seemed to be giving up already. By June 1, they were 15-26, good for seventh place in the American League. A year prior, at that time, their record was almost exactly reversed, with the team holding strongly onto the top spot of the league.
Their problems seemed to focus around their top drawing card and all-around greatest asset, Babe Ruth. During that time, the slugger’s private life was in shambles. With his womanizing becoming the stuff of legend, his marriage to Helen Woodford was falling apart. Ruth was seeing a woman who would later become his second wife, though it is possible that he had many more relationships going on at that same time. Towards the beginning of spring training, with his habitual drinking adding to the mix, the Babe began suffering from horrible stomach cramps and high fevers. During an April 7 stop in Asheville, North Carolina, he completely collapsed in a bathroom. Newspapers in London reported that he had died. His diet being the main culprit in his illness, writers referred to his episode as “the bellyache heard ‘round the world.”
It was discovered that the Babe was suffering from an intestinal abscess, and on the 17th of that month, he went into surgery. Upon his return to the team, Babe was still feeling the effects of his spring training ailment, as he was 30 pounds lighter, and appeared gaunt and wobbly-legged. Many writers felt that the Yankee slugger was through. At thirty years of age, and as a result of his life of consumption and over-indulgence, many felt that he seemed older than Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson did at that same age. They feared he was no longer able to continue being the same kind of player he was in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
The rest of the team faired no better. Their regular third baseman, Joe Dugan, was playing on a bad knee. Everett Scott, who had recently broken his consecutive game streak of 1307 games, seemed to be completely sapped of his strength. Both Catcher Wally Schang and second baseman Aaron Ward were having poor years, and were at the end of their tenure with the club. Wally Pipp, the first-sacker, was batting .244 with only three homers and twenty-three runs batted in. In fact, his average over the last three weeks of May was an anemic .181. Manager Miller Huggins thought it was time for a shakeup, possibly hoping that the threat of the regular starters losing their jobs would encourage better play and more hustle.
Facing the Washington Senators on Tuesday, June 2, he saw his opportunity. Ward’s second base was surrendered to Howard Shanks, while Benny Bengough took the mask and chest protector to behind home plate. And, with lefthander George Mogridge on the mound, Huggins put in the young Columbia University fence-buster Lou Gehrig to play first. Contrary to popular belief that Pipp was benched due to a headache, it was actually because of his ineffectiveness against lefties throughout that season.
It was the first starting job for Gehrig, though up to that point he had been under the club’s wing for two years. On April 18 of 1923, the same day that the Yankees opened their brand-new stadium, Gehrig was pitching for his university team against Williams College. Despite registering a loss, he struck out seventeen – setting a school record – and hit both a single and double. During that season of nineteen games, he hit .444, with six doubles, two triples and seven home runs. The tale of his homers became somewhat legendary at the school, where people said one of his blasts broke a window in Hartley Hall, while another flew 450 feet to smash a sundial dedicated by the class of 1885. He was thought of as “The Babe Ruth of the Colleges.” Yankee scout Paul Krichell had been interested in Gehrig’s bat and was the man responsible for the young man’s signing with the Yankees midway into that season. With Babe Ruth’s power driving New York, finding someone who could augment that was a no brainer. Such an offensive tandem could only mean better draws to the stadium.
Over the next two years, he flourished in the eastern league with the Hartford Senators, hitting .369, with thirty seven homers, thirteen triples and forty doubles in 1924. However, in September when he was called up to New York, he saw very limited playing time as a pinch-hitter. Huggins still had a very reliable veteran in Pipp. And, as long as he felt that the Yankees had a shot at the pennant – which they most certainly did in 1924 – he would play it safe. Very early during the 1925 season, there were even talks of Gehrig being traded to Boston for Phil Todt, another veteran first sacker.
But on that afternoon in June, because of Huggins’ need to shake things up, Gehrig finally seemed to get his chance to become more of a regular in the Yankee lineup. That day, he had two singles and a double in five chances, and was one of the main reasons the Yankees snapped their losing streak with a 8-5 win. Only three regulars from the prior year – Dugan, Ruth and Bob Meusel – started the game.
Pipp worked with Gehrig before each game there-after, helping him improve his technique around first base. He held out that he would win his job back eventually, but almost a month after sitting out, his hope was gone for good. On July 2, he was hit in the head by a Charley Caldwell high and inside fastball during batting practice. He spent a week at St. Vincent’s Hospital with a fractured skull and played very little for the rest of the season.
The Yankees finished the season with one of the worst records their franchise would ever produce, good for second to last place. Attendance at the stadium also fell off to 697,000 – over 30 percent off from the prior season. With all of his injuries and squabbles with Huggins, Babe Ruth only played in 98 games. He batted .290 and hit twenty-five home runs, and though those numbers would be aberrations for any mortal, it was Babe’s worst season in the majors.
Lou Gehrig, soon to be twenty-two years old, continued to play, and began to flourish as a starter. He played in each of the next 113 games, hit twenty home runs, hit .295, and batted in 68 runs.
Wally Pipp, now thirty-two years old, was traded to the Cincinnati Reds before the start of the 1926 season.
The Yankees had their new first baseman.